Updated: May 18, 2020
In the second of this three-part series, we’ll talk to Erica Stancliff and find out how wine has influenced her entire life. She is one of a small percentage of female winemakers in California, putting her stamp on the winemaking world.
Erica Stancliff: Winemaker
Erica Stancliff is the winemaker for Pfendler Vineyards which is located in the Petaluma Gap region of the Sonoma Coast in California. She is also the winemaker for her family winery, Trombetta Family Wines. Both wineries produce Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Although her initial experience was with Bordeaux style wines, she eventually found her calling with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Pursuing a Career in Wine
Erica grew up in California’s Russian River Valley surrounded by vineyards. Her parents were even home winemakers. As fate would have it, the family befriended a man named Paul Hobbs which changed things for all of them. In 1991, Paul decided to open a winery and employed Erica’s mother as the first employee. As an event planner, she focused on hospitality and even jumped in to help with the harvest.
It was this family friendship and a conversation between Erica and Paul, while walking the vineyards, that convinced Erica to pursue a career in wine. She enrolled in Enology (winemaking) at Fresno State and took an internship in Argentina where she learned how to produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc. It was here that she learned the art of problem solving. She was involved at every stage of the winemaking process and learned how to identify the source of a problem and how to implement solutions to improve the wine.
When Erica returned to Napa Valley, she worked at several wineries that focused on Bordeaux varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc). She worked all aspects from harvest to crush and fermentation to bottle. She worked for a time with wine testing. This involved testing and evaluating elements of wine. It also involved consulting; which tapped into her skills for identifying problems with wine and then providing solutions.
Through all of this experience, she realized she missed working on the actual production of wine. So, she shifted her focus and became the lead winemaker at two wineries.
In 2010, her family decided to take their wine to consumers and partnered with their long-time friend, Paul Hobbs, to help launch their own label. The timing couldn’t have been better because Erica was ready for that lead winemaker role at her family winery.
In the meantime, Erica became President of the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance. It was through her activities with the Alliance that she met Kimberly Pfendler, owner of Pfendler Vineyards. The two made a great connection and Erica became Pfendler’s lead winemaker in 2019.
Practices in the Vineyard & Winery
At Pfendler Vineyards, they employ sustainable farming practices. This means they refrain from using man-made chemical sprays. Their goal is to be proactive without being heavy handed.
She explains that sustainable farming produces a better end product with improved flavor concentrations in the grapes. This ultimately translates to the winemaking process. She explains that, if the fruit is clean and the grapes look great, then it’s easy to make great wine.
This approach makes it easier to use minimalist practices in the winemaking process. Their only intervention is to use commercial yeast isolated from vineyards in Burgundy (where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are produced). A small amount of sulfur is also used to help preserve the wine.
Advice for a Career in Wine
Her advice for those interested in pursuing a career in the wine industry is to try it out. Work a harvest, apply for an internship, and above all, don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Erica explains how she loves to get her hands dirty and to work the entire process from harvest through bottling. She likens the process to watching over the grapes like they are children, watching and caring for them into maturity. Erica feels a great sense of pride with each wine when it starts to show its true flavors and personality.
She conveys a great respect for Mother Nature because “no matter how much you plan or prepare, mother nature throws curveballs. The vineyards can get too much rain or too little rain and the yields drop.” She says, “Do everything you can but be patient and flexible.”
Advice to Learn More About Wine
For consumers wanting to learn more about wine, Erica recommends trying numerous styles and producers. Since Chardonnay can be aged in oak barrels or stainless steel tanks, it’s important to try these different styles from different regions and producers. This is the best way to learn about wine and to understand different wine styles and what you like and don’t like.
The same is true for Pinot Noir. She explains that Pinot Noir has a wide spectrum from bright and acidic to dark and brooding. Try a variety of Pinot Noir from Burgundy and then compare to those from California. She says it’s okay if your friend prefers Burgundy and you prefer California Pinot Noir. We all have different tastes and preferences.
Purchase Pfendler Vineyards Wines
Pfendler Vineyards is a small producer. You won’t be able to find them in your local wine shop or restaurant. This is because it can be cost prohibitive for boutique producers to get their wines into wider distribution. The US has a 3-tier distribution system that tends to price small producers out of the market. Direct-to-consumer is the best, most price competitive way to get their wine into consumers’ hands.
Purchase from their website: Pfendler Vineyards
I can’t wait to get my hands on Pfendler Vineyards Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This is one of those unique, boutique vineyards with a great story that is sure to impress your friends and your taste buds!
Read about these Female Winemakers Making History:
Kathleen Inman: Winemaker and Owner of Inman Family Wines.
Kathleen started her own winery after pursuing a career in Finance in England. Find out how she made it happen.
Laura Díaz Muñoz: Lead Winemaker for Ehlers Estate. Laura grew up in Spain, where her love of food and wine drew her into a career in the wine industry. Find out how she found her way to Napa Valley to become the Lead Winemaker and General Manager for Ehlers Estate.